UNH Labs Receive $1.35M in NSF Grants for Research Instruments

UNH Labs Receive $1.35M in NSF Grants for Research Instruments

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

By Sonia Scherr, MFA '13

How can the aquaculture industry prevent reproductive failure in finfish?

Did the chemicals used to clean up oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill harm microbial communities responsible for breaking down wastes?

What processes determine the heating and acceleration of solar wind?

These are just a few of the questions that UNH researchers will be able to explore more easily thanks to two major grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The grants, totaling $1.35 million, will enable the university to buy two major research instruments: a reader of the DNA that encodes an organism’s genetic information and a computer cluster capable of modeling space weather. The equipment will facilitate research in UNH’s Hubbard Center for Genome Studies and the Space Science Center in the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS), as well as other departments and centers.

“This is cutting-edge equipment,” says UNH Senior Vice Provost for Research Jan Nisbet.

“A genome sequencer and a supercomputer will allow us to conduct nationally and internationally relevant, high-impact research.”

It’s the first time since 2008 that UNH has received funding from NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) Program, which helps institutions finance the purchase and development of state-of-the-art equipment.  The MRI program seeks to improve the quality and expand the scope of research and research training in science and engineering by providing shared instrumentation that fosters integration of research and education in research-intensive environments.

Each university is permitted to submit up to two proposals to NSF’s annual MRI competition to acquire new instrumentation. “UNH is delighted that both proposals selected through our internal competition process were recognized by NSF for awards this year,” says Nisbet.

UNH’s awards, announced this summer, include $815,000 for an Illumina HiSeq 2000 DNA sequencer — the largest MRI grant the university has ever received.  The grant comes amid advances in DNA-sequencing technology that have been fueled by interest in personal genomics. 

Kelly Thomas 

Professor W. Kelley Thomas

“The unintended consequence of that technological sea-change is that it has had an impact on such a broad spectrum of biology — and especially in areas where UNH excels, such as environmental biology and ecology,” says W. Kelley Thomas, who spearheaded the grant proposal and directs UNH’s Hubbard Center for Genome Studies.  “I think the real reason we won the award is the overall strength of the faculty in those areas.”

Housed in Gregg Hall, the DNA sequencer will help researchers answer questions about emerging diseases, consequences of environmental change (including global warming and land development), conservation of threatened species, cleanup of oil spills, and agricultural practices.  It will contribute to research and training in 16 UNH laboratories during the next five years, supporting the work of 237 undergraduates, 65 graduate students and 29 postdoctoral fellows.  Currently, UNH faculty must use instruments at labs across the country, where internal users usually have priority.  Turn-around time for UNH faculty typically has been four to nine months, hindering research and training for our faculty and students.

Among those who will benefit from the new sequencer is Eric Morrison, who just completed a master’s degree in microbiology at UNH and is beginning the Ph.D. program in Natural Resources & Earth Systems Science. Working with Serita Frey, professor of soil microbial ecology, he’s studying the effects of added nitrogen on ecosystem processes. (Nitrogen occurs naturally in the environment but also comes from human activities such as fossil fuel burning and fertilizer use.)  Morrison is interested in how soil fungi function differently in the presence of increased nitrogen, in some cases decomposing organic matter more slowly.  “This new equipment is probably the ideal technology to ask that question because of the volume of DNA sequences we can get from it,” says Morrison, whose dataset includes some 700 species of fungi.  “It allows us to assay (test) that community all at once and to see what those species are doing in the environment by looking at which genes are present.”

Less earth-bound research will also get a boost: A nearly $535,000 MRI grant for a new computer cluster will benefit investigations in multiple disciplines, including physics, engineering and math. The new cluster, to be located at UNH’s Research Computing and Instrumentation Center in Morse Hall, will supercede the current one installed in 2005, called Zaphod after the Zaphod Beeblebrox character in Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy."

professor Joachim (Jimmy) Raeder

Professor Joachim (Jimmy) Raeder

“It’s really old in the computer world, so there’s a big need to replace it,” says UNH physics professor Joachim (Jimmy) Raeder, who led the grant proposal.

The new cluster will help researchers better understand turbulence, fluid flows, magnetic reconnection (the process by which magnetic energy is converted into heat and kinetic energy), and space weather.  Although physically slightly smaller than the current cluster, it will fill three 19” wide “racks” that are three-feet deep by eight-feet high.  “The new cluster will be roughly 15 times as powerful as Zaphod, and we will get about 500 times what a typical desktop computer would have — and to solve many problems we need that degree of power,” Raeder says. 

The machine’s computational abilities will, the researchers hope, lead to advances with practical implications — such as improved prediction of space weather.  Solar storms affect many types of navigational and communications technology, including the global-positioning system (GPS) used in industries ranging from aviation to off-shore drilling.  In 1989, a powerful solar storm caused a 12-hour blackout throughout Quebec and triggered power-grid problems across the United States.  Also potentially at risk from solar activity are the roughly 1,000 commercial satellites in space, which together cost about $500 billion.  In 2010, for instance, the Galaxy 15 telecommunications satellite failed, apparently because of a solar storm.  According to Raeder, being able to predict space weather could help mitigate its disruptive effects.

The new computer cluster will be used by about a dozen faculty members at any given time, along with 20-30 graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and other researchers.  Although the grant will finance only the new machine, not the research it is intended to support, “The availability of the machine will enhance the likelihood of successful proposals,” Raeder says.  “That’s definitely something we’ve seen with the previous machine.” 

To see these new instruments in action, look for announcements of “open houses” during the next several months.